The state of debate

Labour Party conference 2001: not much discussion about not very much.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Labour Party conference 2001 was supposed to be Tony Blair’s toughest since the rewriting of Clause IV in 1995. Apparently, rank-and-file members disgruntled about the government’s plans for using private money for public services were gearing up for a coup.

No doubt these divisions were talked up – in the absence of any Tory opposition many observers tried to inflate Labour’s opposition within. But while the promised coup may not have happened anyway, it certainly wasn’t going to after 11 September.

Unlike past conferences at times of national crisis, the Labour Party conference was truncated. In 1940, a year when Holland, France and Belgium fell to the Germans, conference went to term; in 1945, amid the ruins of war, the conference provided the launch-pad for Labour’s postwar government.

But in 2001, 11 September hung like a dark cloud over the whole half-week. As one MP put it, with such a backdrop of terror, people are prepared to ignore their differences – debates are put on hold, arguments brushed under the carpet. Another delegate commented that the events in America made domestic politics ‘pale into insignificance’. The backdrop was driven home by the huge security barriers, the dozens of police, the queues to get through security each morning and the sharpshooters poised on nearby rooftops.

So the trade union Unison did a deal to over public service reform – leader of the GMB general union John Edmonds said that ‘The last thing this country needs is the government and unions spending this week at each other’s throats. We must have a debate, but we must avoid division’ – which, of course, is recipe for an entirely phoney debate. The public services debate was replaced with a question and answer session, where shirt-sleeved ministers skilfully dealt with questions (many of which were allegedly planted).

Due to the other demands on his time, Blair broke with tradition and didn’t attend any of the fringe events at the conference. And the party’s Conference Arrangements Committee barred constituency resolutions on Bush’s missile defence system on the grounds that they were ‘not contemporary’.

This is obviously not a turnaround that Blair lost any sleep over. In fact, it worked out quite nicely for him. No bad publicity about Unison, no friction with the USA about the Star Wars project, no need to be seen about conference at fringe events or to fraternise with the party faithful.

But if the Labour Party conference is anything to go by, this instinct to put party politics on hold doesn’t resolve disagreements; instead, they fester away below the surface, and dissatisfaction increases. Although given the irrelevance of the mass of Labour Party members to the political decisions of the leadership, this is not such a problem for Blair.

Delegates noted the lack of buzz at this year’s conference. One MP said that, for the first time, large numbers of people were commuting – reflecting a decline in the traditional conference late-night drinking and socialising. Another conference attendee of 30 years’ Labour membership said: ‘I haven’t enjoyed it. It’s been stunted. With all the security, it’s all on edge.’ But he acknowledged that ‘the only option was to cancel’. There was a certain grim sense of the show needing to go on, without any reason for it to do so.

And there was still a strong mood about public service reform. ‘The issue is not going away’, one delegate told me, ‘It’s just been postponed’. ‘It will come back next year’, said another. Around 3000 ‘Keep public services public’ neck bands were given out to conference attendees, and many of them were worn.

But it is not clear how much of the rank-and-file opposition to privatisation is genuinely political, and how much the issue has simply become a focus for their dissatisfaction with the leadership. ‘There was no debate on public services’, said one Welsh ex-officio, ‘but there wasn’t going to be one anyway. They weren’t going to listen’.

It is worth remembering that the buzz-free and debate-less nature of this year’s party conference is not solely a consequence of 11 September. Rather, 11 September accentuated an ongoing feature of the (New) Labour Party. New Labour was created by effectively fighting a war against the party membership – by cutting off the unions and creating a presidential chain-of-command from Blair outwards. In The Unfinished Revolution, New Labour adviser Philip Gould quotes Blair as saying, ‘Past Labour leaders lost because they compromised. I will never compromise. I would rather be beaten and leave politics than bend to the party. I am going to take the party on’.

Blair resented the Labour Party for preventing him from doing what he wanted to do as fast as he could – ‘Tony was impatient’, Gould says repeatedly in The Unfinished Revolution, ‘he wanted to go faster’. The result has been an isolated and cliquey leadership, and a cynical and disengaged membership.

‘There used to be real debates, real decisions at conference’, said the Welsh ex-officio. ‘Nowadays it is less like a conference, and more like a trade fair.’ That the days of block votes and smoke-filled rooms are seen in such a rosy light is indicative of the extent of the political malaise within the Labour Party today.

While this state of affairs gives Blair a free hand in government, the dissatisfaction of the rank-and-file also presents him with certain problems. Blair got a hassle-free conference and the chance to make an esteemed speech about sorting out the problems of the world. But while all the delegates I spoke to after his speech agreed he was good, and it was a good speech, nobody came out rallying to his cause. The sense of cynicism and disengagement remained. And if he is unable to enthuse ‘activists’ in his own party, what chance has he got with the rest of the British population?

Party chairman Charles Clarke opened the conference by calling for the reinvigoration of grassroots party membership. Even the most faithful of Labour’s party faithful should now be having doubts about whether this is really what Tony wants. As a politician, he prefers posturing about other countries’ problems than he does tackling his own – and is less comfortable doing politics with other people in his party than he is exercising power alone.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

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